Chinese poetry: 4. Leisure

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry

IV. Leisure

The word hsien (閒), here tentatively rendered as “leisure,” is sometimes also translated as “idleness.” However, when used in poetry, it carries no derogatory implications, and can mean more than just being unoccupied, but a state of mind free from worldly cares and desires and at peace with itself and with Nature. Perhaps “being in peace” is a better translation. It is one of the key words in the poetry of Wang Wei (王維), as the following couplets from some of his poems will help to show:

In silence heaven and earth are growing dusk,

My mind, with the broad stream, lies in peace.

My mind, ever peaceful, is made more so

By the clear stream that lies so calm.

The clear stream washes the tall thicket;

Carriages and horses pass by in peace.

Man in peace, cassia flowers fall;

Night quiet, spring hill is empty.

From these lines one can perceive how the poet has emptied his mind of worries and desires and identified it with the objects around him: everything, from the great river to the passing traffic and the falling flowers, seems as calm and peaceful as his own mind. There is no sense of regret at the poet’s idleness, nor there even any suggestion of sadness, as in many other Chinese poems, that the river is flowing away and never coming back and that the flowers are falling. Wang Wei has, in fact, raised hsien to the level of philosophic and aesthetic contemplation, a state of mind even higher and more positive than the kind of indolence Keats celebrated, with its rejection of Love, Ambition, and Poesy.

However, in the works of some other Chinese poets, hsien has no such philosophic import. Rather, it signifies a nonchalant, listless, and wistful state of mind that resembles ennui. For instance, in the following lyric to the tune “Tieh Luan Hua”(蝶戀花) by Feng Yen-ssu (馮延巳), “idle feeling” (閒情, hsien ching) has nothing to do with philosophic contemplation:

Who says that this idle feeling has long been left aside?

Whenever spring comes, my melancholy returns as before.        


Every day, before the flowers, I’m ill with too much drinking,      

Yet dare I refuse to let my image in the mirror grow thin?


O You green grass by the river and willows on the dam,     

Pray tell me: why does new sorrow arise with each year?


Alone on a little bridge I stand, my sleeves filled with wind;        

The new moon rises above the woods and everyone else is gone.     


Some commentators would have us believe that this poem is allegorical, that the poet, who was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Southern Tang, was worried about his country. This seems to me too far-fetched. Indeed, Chinese critics are only too apt to impose an allegorical interpretation on any poem. Let us take the poem simply as a lyric: the poet is troubled with a nameless, groundless, “idle feeling” a feeling of ennui, of languor, of a “deuil sans raison.” To drown it, he is drinking himself to death (or so he thinks). Yet he takes a masochistic pleasure in pining away like this (and who can blame him for enjoying such a pleasant way of pining away?) and he even considers it a moral obligation to do so (“ dare I refuse?”). This sophisticated emotional attitude, so reminiscent of late 19th century European decadence, is revealed in a language no less sophisticated. Notice, among other things, how the poet speaks of letting his image in the mirror grow thin, instead of himself. This kind of poetry seeks to capture subtle and elusive moods and to explore complex and indefinable emotions which could only exist in a highly cultured, aristocratic, and (yes!) leisured milieu. Here, hsien has all the social and cultural implications of “leisure” as in “a lady of leisure.” At the same time, it is tinged with gentle melancholy, which makes it different from the frivolity of “idle singers of an empty day.”




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